It isn’t out of the ordinary for Denise Melton, executive director for the Cumberland Children’s Center — House of Hope in Crossville, to receive requests that are sometimes difficult to manage. The House of Hope is, after all, a “gap service organization,” which by definition means they fill the needs of humankind that government agencies, for whatever reason, cannot.
Many times, those in need are experiencing extraordinary hardships, so it’s only reasonable that their needs are extraordinary as well. However, Melton and her small army of tireless volunteers in and around the Cumberland County region pull together to meet those needs, whatever they may be.
When Melton was contacted by a distraught grandmother trying to get her granddaughter out of a Mexican orphanage, the House of Hope director sprang into action as usual, believing there had to be a way to get this child home to a family who was waiting to love and care for her. The nine-month journey included much faith, many people and an abundance of prayers, Melton said.
Macy, at barely four years old, was abandoned in Mexico by her mother and a boyfriend. The child was found living alone with her little dog. She was then placed in an orphanage in Guadalajara. It was there the young American would stay, believing that her fate had been sealed, even after Macy had told orphanage officials that she had family in the United States that loved her. At the young age of four, Macy, an English-speaking American, adapted quickly and was soon fluently speaking Spanish, leaving her native language behind.
Macy’s grandmother, Christy Hawks of Crossville, had no idea where her granddaughter had ended up. The last time Hawks saw Macy, the child was with her mother and a boyfriend, a Mexican citizen. Then, in April 2012, a reliable source contacted the Department of Children’s Services in Cumberland County. It was then Hawks learned that her granddaughter had been in the orphanage for two years.
Jennie Wright, Department for Children’s Services team leader in Cumberland County, and Hawks worked to break through tight regulations of government bureaucracy without much luck. That’s when they turned to the House of Hope.
“This was out of our realm of expertise,” Melton said. “The case was considered a gray area because our government agencies could not officially intervene. I cannot tell you how inadequate I felt when I was asked to help with this case, but if I am not anything else, I am persistent, and I knew God would send all that we would ever need to conquer the task at hand. We just couldn’t give up.”
Although Melton confesses feeling uncertain, it never showed in her actions. Within three days of speaking with Macy’s grandmother, Melton had managed to get word out to the Cumberland County community and raised enough money to cover expenses that would take her and Hawks to Mexico.
As red tape began to wrap around plans to retrieve Macy, the work began to grow, as did the diligence of Melton and Macy’s grandmother. The House of Hope director began receiving documents from Mexico and found she needed a translator who could read, interpret and then help respond accordingly.
It was then that a woman by the name of Sandra Gluschankoff, who had heard Macy’s story through Melton’s Facebook postings, contacted the House of Hope and offered to help. Gluschankoff, who is both bilingual and of Hispanic descent, offered her services free of charge to the House of Hope, opening doors of communication with those at the orphanage and Mexican Children’s Services.
Sandra Baxter, attorney and House of Hope supporter, volunteered her services to Melton to aid in getting Macy home. Baxter began serving as a liaison for the House of Hope, the orphanage and Mexican Children’s Services and soon found there were many obstacles to overcome before Macy could come home―one of the biggest hurdles being that someone in Mexico had intentions of adopting Macy. It was not until later that Baxter discovered it was a social worker from the orphanage. This scenario explained the sudden lack of communication and progress coming to a lengthy halt. The regulations required to bring an American child home seemed impossible to overcome.
Adding difficulty, Melton’s resources were reporting that the Consulate General in Mexico she had been working with was leaving her duties and someone else would be taking her place. Although Mexico’s previous Consulate General had been helpful, Melton was told there would be no guarantees that the next appointee would be so amenable. Legally, because Macy was considered abandoned and was a ward of the Mexican government, officials there were under no obligation to help get Macy back to the U.S. at all. Melton and all those working tirelessly to pave a safe road for Macy’s return, found themselves at the mercy of strangers in a foreign land.
“We were in fear that an adoption to the orphanage’s social worker would go through before we could get to Macy,” Melton said.
Once the new Consulate General in Mexico was in place, Melton received a phone call from the Consulate of Citizen Services that Macy’s file was the first to cross the new consulate’s desk. Finding the situation of an American child stuck without hope in a Mexican orphanage unacceptable, the new consulate started the ball rolling again. It was then that Melton and her team began the process of completing required paperwork and documents to get Macy home. The Mexican government asked for a home study and psychological evaluation of Hawks before they would agree to release Macy into the care of her grandmother. Ordinarily, the study and evaluation would have cost thousands of dollars but another House of Hope volunteer stepped up. Dr. Denise Weaver, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owner of Crossville Counseling Center, donated her time in order to prepare the necessary paperwork to satisfy Mexican officials that Macy would be in excellent care with her grandmother in the United States.
“Many times we were met with same day deadlines and we were so afraid if we did not meet those last minute requests negotiations would stop,” Melton said, recalling the tense moments of frustration. “We waited as the Special Council in Guadalajara could meet to decide if Macy should be returned to the United States.“
Even more Mexican sources brought allegations that Macy’s grandmother didn’t even want her, which Melton deemed bizarre and unfounded. Melton was also informed at this point that the boyfriend, who was a legal resident of Mexico, may have rights to Macy. Melton decided it was time to re-involve the United States government, this time on a legislative level.
“We had lived, worked and breathed this case for months,” Melton said. “A few emails later that were copied to our U.S. Senator Bob Corker and finally it was understood that we would be coming to get Macy and would take whatever measures necessary to do so. Finally, the case started moving forward again.”
Once the paperwork and documents were approved by the Special Council in Mexico, Melton and Hawks had the green light to make plans for travel. Understandably apprehensive about dealing with the orphanage and the Mexican government, Melton feared that once in Mexico all the months of planning, fundraising and praying might unravel at the slightest upset.
It was then that Melton set out to find a third party to travel with her and Hawks. It seemed an insurmountable task―finding someone who could not only speak the language but was familiar with the Mexican political and social landscape. Melton’s uneasiness began to grow as did hopes for finding an interpreter. To add to anxieties now, there were rumblings of messages from Macy’s mother―the mother who had abandoned her―beginning to surface about when Melton and Hawks would be arriving in Mexico. The House of Hope director sent out another plea for help.
“I felt sure that if the mother and boyfriend found out when we were arriving that we could be met with some resistance after getting Macy,” Melton said. “Somehow the two of them always knew of tentative travel plans and details.”
Melton feared the mother’s sudden reclaimed interest in Macy might be self-serving and could possibly involve plans for an illegal adoption.
Through a connection to Kentucky Commission on Women board member Marta Miranda of Louisville, KY, and another connection with Marissa Castellanos, a social worker for Catholic Charities of Louisville and Human Trafficking Program manager, Melton was introduced to a man named Israel Avelar.
Avelar, who is affiliated with the National Organization to Prevent Human Trafficking and is employed by the University of Kentucky, holds dual citizenship with the United States and Mexico and speaks fluent Spanish.
“We could not have navigated our way through this had it not been for Israel (Avelar),” Melton said. “Because Macy had been in the orphanage for almost three years, we knew she wouldn’t understand English―we wouldn’t be able to communicate with her. Mr. Avelar served as our translator and protector.”
Plans for Macy’s retrieval were almost in place, but Melton prayed for just one more thing―a travel agent that could plan the trip to Mexico with accurate precision and with attention to delicate details―to get the trio in and out of the country as quickly as possible. Melton, leaving nothing to chance, knew there could possibly be even more obstacles in the way―travel warnings, customs and immigration. What happened next, Melton said, was nothing short of a miracle.
“The next day, after we were given the go-ahead to make plans for travel, Linda Yates, a long-time travel agent, came through the House of Hope’s door to make a random donation,” Melton said, recalling what she referred to as the arrival of one of the many angels that had crossed her threshold during the nine-month sojourn. “Once I discovered Linda was a travel agent―and assumed because of her donation she was interested in helping the House of Hope, I, of course, asked her to plan our trip. She did it at no charge.”
After the chance meeting with Yates just after Melton’s heartfelt prayer for God to help with travels, the House of Hope’s executive director knew everything was going to be just fine.
“God had sent everyone and everything we needed and then some,” Melton said, tearing up a bit. “The trip was planned to perfection.”
Melton, Hawks and Avelar arrived at the orphanage in Guadalajara early on the morning of Jan. 14.
“The orphanage was one of the nicer ones in that area but we were met with an armed police officer, a large padlocked steel door and razor wire around the perimeter of the building,” Melton said.
The orphanage where Macy was living houses 400 children of all ages and is only one of the many institutions erected throughout Mexico. The consulate, orphanage officials, Melton, Hawks and Avelar met in a room just before the transfer of Macy to her grandmother. It was then that Hawks was given full custody of her granddaughter, Macy, by the Mexican government. Officers of the consulate then escorted the trio, plus Macy, to the Office of the Consulate to secure a passport for the child and to complete other paperwork needed to get through immigration.
“This type of transfer of a child from a government to an individual is unheard of unless it is an official adoption which can cost thousands of dollars in fees,” Melton said, recalling the anxious moments before paperwork was finalized. “Had anything gone wrong Macy would not have been able to leave the country―we all knew that.”
Melton insists that the success of Macy’s return isn’t due to her, the House of Hope or any one organization or individual. Instead, it has reaffirmed Melton’s belief that the House of Hope could not survive if not for the generosity and selflessness of others.
“It is because of our supporters and volunteers over the years that we have been able to operate since 2004 as a private child advocacy center without government ties,” Melton said. “Had we been a government-funded agency I doubt we would have been allowed to intervene in this case as we did. It is because of our supporters that we can operate outside of the box and take care of gray area issues. Getting Macy home was successful because of people willing to be used and directed by God for His purpose across three states and one country. I truly believe that God has great plans for Macy.”
Melton said she’d do it all over again and then some just to be able to see Macy’s face again when child’s homeland came into full view.
“When our plane landed on US soil, Macy was so excited, she was talking a mile a minute,” Melton said, smiling as she recalled Macy’s reaction. “Although I could not understand a word she said I knew she was happy to be home. Macy is doing well and says she is so happy to be with her Nana, siblings and cousins. She is well on her way learning to speak English again but will hold onto her fluent Spanish. She misses her friends that she had to leave behind. Macy also loves her pretty clothes provided by Cumberland County Salvation Army.
“The family of Macy and I would like to thank all of the House of Hope supporters for your prayers and donations not only during this process but over the course of many years,” Melton concluded. “Our supporters made a difference and because of that Macy’s life will be changed forever.”
As for Melton and what’s next for the House of Hope, the executive director quipped as she turned and pointed to the front of her office, “I won’t know until it walks through that door.”